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Saturday morning quote #20: Derivative

October 1, 2011

For twenty consecutive weeks now, we have without fail posted a small sampling of quotes derived from words scribbled or spoken by selected figures – of the past and of the present – who in some way inspire us.  We do this partly as a demonstration of our commitment to history, to the unfashionable idea that knowledge of the past informs how we might live today, and how we should prepare for the future.  This may seem something of an existential joke, using such a modern and mutable forum as a blog to describe the importance of things past.  But if just one or two people follow up on the random historical thoughts we share here and cares to turn off the machine, disconnect from the internet and perhaps read a book, then it’s worth the bother.

Our first quote is extracted from the section ‘To the Reader’ from Samuel Danyell’s Delia. Contayning certayne Sonnets…, published in London, 1592.  Departing from our usual presentation, we have modernized the spelling of some words in order to clarify the meaning.

I know no work from man yet ever came
But had his mark, and by some error showed
That it was his, and yet what in the same
Was rare, and worthy, evermore allowed
Safe convoy for the rest: the good that’s sowed
Though rarely pays our cost, & who so looks
To have all things in perfection, & in frame
In men’s inventions, never must read books.

One interpretation of this passage leads us to think the quote addresses the idea of originality in a given work.  Danyell is implying that, if one reads, he is influenced in some way by what he has read.  But the further work that results from the use of the information will bear the unmistakeable mark of the interpreter.

This idea is important to us as interpreters of old music but more relevant to those who compose and create new music.  As a corollary, we quote one Gordon Sumner in an interview from last week’s Observer:

I don’t think there’s very much original in what I do…In pop music, there’s no such thing as composition. We collate from pre-existing tropes and then the originality comes in the interpretation.

This is, of course, from the guy known as Sting, so-called apparently as a result of his propensity for performing in an outfit that resembled the markings of a bumble bee.

The point: Art is in the present and comes from an individual creative spark, but is the cumulative result of what we study and how we experience the combination of rumors, conjecture and speculative facts that are the elements of History.  Art bears our own unmistakeable stamp even as we interpret the work of others.  So there.

  1. Bill Samson permalink

    “Standing on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind. It seems to be an essential prerequisite for most successful human endeavours.

  2. Thanks, Bill. It would seem a logical conclusion that who and what we are today is a result of what has come before. That is, a logical conclusion unless you live anywhere near the intense confusion that is the consumer culture of the US. Unfortunately, education has been effectively underfunded for many years now, and most people will describe at great lengths the virtues of their many electronic gadgets but could not elaborate on the source or meaning of the quote you cite.

    I first ran across the quote, “the dwarf who stands on the shoulders of a giant sees the further of the two,” in Edward Lowinsky’s introduction to his edition of Musica Nova. He was describing his understanding of musica ficta, and comparing his approach to the principles laid out by Knud Jeppeson. Since I read books, I was able to discover that the quote was attributed to Isaac Newton, who most likely learned it from one of the ancient sources reading the original Latin.

    My admittedly cynical impression is that the next few generations will have to rediscover the value of wisdom gained from reading books after the power goes out, and online sources of information vanish like smoke.


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